Times managing editor Jill Abramson is defending the paper’s decision to suggest that McCain was having an affair based on two unnamed and former “associates” who said that McCain’s “advisers” had “grown so concerned that the relationship [with Iseman] had become romantic that they took steps to intervene.”
Times readers wanted to know: Couldn’t anyone speak on the record? “It is always preferable to have named sources in stories,” Abramson says:
In 2003, The Times tightened its standards for anonymous sourcing and appointed a standards editor to the masthead. In the case of our McCain story, Times standards were followed and senior editors knew the identities of the sources for the story, who provided detailed and consistent accounts about their concerns about the senator’s relationship with a Washington lobbyist. On many important stories, especially on controversies involving Washington politics and policy battles, sources request anonymity for different reasons. Some fear retribution, including loss of their positions. Some are motivated by a desire to share sensitive information that they deem in the public interest but fear disclosing their identities for a variety of reasons. Others have less selfless reasons…
Our new standards require that when we use anonymous sources we disclose and publish as much as we can about their backgrounds and motivations. In the McCain story we had named sources and anonymous sources. We disclosed as much about them as we could. In the case of two anonymous sources, the story said, “The two associates, who said that they had become disillusioned with the senator, spoke independently of each other and provided details that were corroborated by others.”
The potential bias of “disillusioned” sources was carefully weighed against their accounts. The sources corroborated one another without orchestration, an issue, among others, that our team meticulously investigated. During the long process of our reporting on the story, we attempted, time and time again, to persuade our sources to go on the record and let us use their names. Again, there are named sources in the story but some sources continued to insist on maintaining the cloak of anonymity. As we neared publication, both the editors and the reporting team once again tested the veracity of these sources to make sure every fact in the story was accurate. We were all fully satisfied.